The NOPP Ocean Drifter Data and Education Site
Entry ID: 01-drifter-99
Abstract: Ocean currents play an extremely important role in the global transfer of
water, heat, organisms, nutrients, potential pollutants, and sediments.
Satellite and computer technology, combined with years of experience are
presently used to investigate how water moves within the ocean. In one of the
earliest attempts to study ocean currents, scientists aboard the R.M.S.
Challenger used a float or ... what is now called a drifter designed specifically
to drift passively with the flow of water. Drifters are typically deployed
into the sea from a ship or sometimes from an airplane. Once floating within
the ocean's surface water, a transmitter on the drifter sends a signal to
Earth orbiting satellites which then relay the drifter's position to a
receiving station. The data are then sent to the data assembly center where
they are processed and distributed.
Drifters may also house sensors which measure other ocean properties such as
surface temperature, wind, ocean color, pressure, or salinity, and these data
can also be transmitted through the satellite link. A typical drifter will
transmit data for approximately 1.5 years. The accuracy of ocean drifter
positions averages approximately 500 m, a reasonable level of error
considering the scale of the open ocean features the drifters are used to
Drifter data can be used to verify or ground truth data from satellites, such
as sea surface temperatures or ocean color. Scientists also use drifter data
to build models of climate and weather patterns, such as El Nino or hurricanes.
Many organisms in the ocean drift along with ocean currents, especially the
larvae or young of many marine species. Studies on the world's fisheries use
drifter tracks to understand where organisms, such as the spiny lobsters in
Florida, originate, and how they live. Industries that rely on ships for
transport or have extensive operations at sea, use drifter tracks to better
understand current patterns.
(Summary adapted from the NOPP drifter web site)
ISO Topic Category
Quality Educators can use data and information to integrate ocean science into
curricula, scientists use drifter data to build models of climate and
weather patterns, and Oceanographers use drifter data to track
major ocean currents and eddies.
Creation and Review Dates